The Bond Project: On Her Majesty's Secret Service
. Since I first saw this neglected and underappreciated film, I have been one of its most ardent admirers. This film almost completely dispenses with the standard Bond formula. It was a good time to do it. This is the sixth film in the venerable franchise, and the first one which does not feature Sean Connery in the lead role. Of course, modern audiences expect to be asked to adjust to a new lead actor every couple of films, but at the time, this was quite a daring step. As much as Sean Connery is still widely considered to be "the" James Bond, at the time, he was also the only one most viewers had ever seen. Then, as now, the films were far more widely seen than the books were read, so most people had never known of Bond without Connery. All of that puts a tremendous amount of pressure on poor, unknown, George Lazenby.
First, George wasn't much of an actor at that point. He was a model, and he had done some commercials. Second, he wasn't Scottish (like Connery and Bond are), and he wasn't even British. He was Australian! Now, he was asked to fill the shoes of a much loved actor in a much loved role.
The production team made an interesting decision. They bent over backwards to tie OHMSS into the Bond family by including lots of subtle and not-so-subtle references to the previous films. The title sequences included images taken from each previous film. The scene where Bond is preparing to leave MI6 includes lovingly nostalgic memorabilia from the previous films, and there's even the odd musical cue throw back (the janitor whistling the theme from Goldfinger). And yet, the script itself represents a massive departure from what is normally expected. Despite the title, Bond is not working for Her Maesty's Secret Service at any point in this film. [The irony would be repeated for "License to Kill", which was originally going to be called, more appropriately, "License Revoked", but for the fact that, according to film legend, Americans didn't know what "revoked" means.] Bond is on leave, and he's using his hard-earned vacation time to track down the villainous Blofeld, who, for reasons known only to himself, is trying to be recognized as the decendent of some Count. One would have thought that world domination would be ambition enough, but megalomanical madmen are nothing if not megalomaniacal.
Meanwhile, Bond meets and falls in love with (no, really!) the beautiful Tracy, as played by Diana Rigg, who remains to this day my all time favorite Bond girls. Of course, he slaps her around a bit, sleeps with a couple other women, and all in all doesn't treat her very well, but she loves him too. Already, you can see that this is a bit of change for dear old James. Indeed, not only is Blofeld himself kept out of the picture for quite a while, but we don't even get a gander at what he's up to until the final act. You see, Bond is trying to stop devilish plot to provoke a war or anything like that. He is simply trying to find Blofeld. He does so, of course, and finds him in the midst of a devilish plot, and so must of course put a stop to it. He is aided by an army of criminal underlings, which is both poetic justice for the dastardly Ernst, and nice change of pace from being aided by an army of heroic underlings.
Speaking of pace, I noticed on my most recent viewing of the film that the tempo of this movie is all over the place. The build-up is long, slow, and utterly irrelevant to what eventually becomes the plot. It involves Bond ostensibly trying to track down Blofeld, but really concerns his courtship of Tracy. Once Blofeld is discovered, Bond sets out on an amusing cover operation as a representative of the British Government attempting to ascertain to truth of Blofeld's claim of ancestry. Of course, despite the fact that they met face to face under a volcano in Japan, neither Blofeld nor Bond recognizes the other. Here we get an amusingly low tension sequence of Bond, newly in love but not yet engaged, cavorting with a host of attractive ladies, including Joanna "Patsy" Lumley. [Patsy was also a Bond girl, she once told Edina, in "Bond Meets Emanuelle". Sadly, that film will not be a part of The Bond Project.] This delightful sequence, which employs the voice of George Baker rather than George Lazenby, is brought to an abrupt end, and we are treated to a delightful (but terribly long) chase sequence, where Tracy improbably arrives to save the day. Of course, she's soon kidnapped, which brings us the the denoument: a full on assault on Blofeld's headquarters, followed by another long chase sequence.
This film has a lot of ground to cover, to be sure, which is why it clocks in as the longest Bond film at something like 2 hours and 20 minutes. But it seems to me that it's actually two utterly different films with a little token overlap. This is why the film is such a marked departure from the Bond formula. No other Bond picture has had to grapple with a mostly separate human story in addition to the standard spy story. The Bond-Tracy film is, all by itself, delightful, and well worth watching. The actual Bond story is enjoyable enough, if slight. But the pacing problems are a real flaw. It's a difficult film to get a grip on, as it keeps changing from one story to the other in the most abrupt and graceless of ways.
These shortcomings are redeemed by the final scene, which George Lazenby performs to perfection. The death of Tracy, while an utterly improbably and highly contrived development, are handled with a tenderness and depth I never would have believed possible. As much as I enjoy Connery's better Bond performances, I wonder if he would have been able to rise to the challenge of this scene as well as poor, overlooked, underappreciated George Lazenby did.
I still consider this film to be highly underrated, but I don't put myself so firmly into the pro-OHMSS camp. It's fans tend to be a little overenthusiastic in singing its praises, and rarely seem to acknowledge its evident flaws. On the other hand, packaged in between the lackluster You Only Live Twice
and the utterly dire Diamonds are Forever
, this film does tend to look pretty good in comparison.
The bottom line: one of the better Bond films, but it couldn't quite deliver on its promise.
UPDATE: Ed's reveiw of this film is available here
. The Bond Project continues with Diamonds are Forever